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Our World Transcript — 11 March 2006


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Possible water on a distant moon ... continuing preparations for avian flu ... and the value of subsidies for a costly malaria medicine.

LAXMINARYAN: "The introduction of an artemisinin subsidy would have an impact on reducing the burden of malaria tremendously and could potentially save between 15,000 and 25,000 lives each month."

Those stories, that cup of coffee and your heart, plus more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

U.S. scientists said this week they have found what may be signs of liquid water on one of the moons of Saturn. But the leader of the NASA imaging team, Carolyn Porco, cautions that they have only circumstantial evidence; that spacecraft instruments haven't actually identified water molecules.

PORCO: "We haven't found water, per se, we've found evidence of water, and our best models, right now, are those that suggest that there's pockets of liquid water under the surface."

The evidence comes from the Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn in 2004. It flew past Saturn's small moon, Enceladus, which is only about 500 kilometers across. The spacecraft also detected carbon molecules, which is, with water, a key ingredient in life as we know it.

PORCO: "It appears we have all the ingredients that all the experts have claimed for a long time now, you would need to have environments suitable for living organisms. And so, that's what we think we have here. We have found another environment in our solar system, in a very surprising place, that could host living organisms."

Carolyn Porco and her colleagues published their latest findings from Saturn in the journal "Science."

If you listen to VOA on shortwave you might know that there is a periodic cycle of sunspots, and that it affects long-distance radio reception here on earth. That 11-year cycle is well-known, but the ability to predict the intensity of the sunspots is much newer. Researchers project that the next sunspot cycle will be much stronger than the last one, based on a new computer model they say will help plan for possible disturbances in communications and satellites far ahead of time. VOA's David McAlary reports.

McALARY: As peaceful as the sun appears, it is really a ball of hot, churning gases. Scientists believe that turbulent gas flows below the surface of the sun cause a cycle of magnetic activity that grows and subsides over 11-year periods. When the sun's magnetic activity is at its peak, sunspots are numerous and solar storms are generally most intense, spewing out billions of tons of electrically charged particles toward Earth that can cause electrical blackouts and the failure of communications networks and satellites.

Scientists at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research developed a computer model of the sun that follows its gas flows. They used telescopes to observe the growth, speed and trail of sunspots, areas of the strongest magnetism that track the gas movement beneath.

Center researcher Mausumi Dikpati says the computer model, combined with data about previous solar cycles, allows the first forecast of when and how strong the next solar cycle will be.

DIKPATI: "We predict that the next solar cycle will be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the last cycle. Our model also predicted that the onset of the next cycle will be delayed by six to 12 months to late 2007 or early 2008."

McALARY: Dikpati says her team's solar sunspot model simulated the strength of the past eight solar cycles with more than 98 percent accuracy, giving them a great deal of confidence in it as a forecasting tool.

Scientists have never been able to accurately predict the timing or intensity of maximum solar activity before. NASA sun researcher David Hathaway calls the new work exciting.

HATHAWAY: "First of all, it is based on sound physical principles, and secondly, it finally answers the 150-year-old question of what causes the 11-year sunspot cycle."

McALARY: The U.S. governments' chief solar storm forecaster, Joseph Kunches of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the findings will help his agency better advise operators of satellites, communications networks, and electrical power grids to anticipate the onslaught of charged solar particles that will require them to protect their systems.

KUNCHES "You can think of this sort of like hurricane season forecasting. The kinds of questions posed to hurricane forecasters also come to us in terms of space weather — when is the next cycle going to start, how strong will it be, what are the effects going to be?"

McALARY: Even if Mausumi Dikpati is correct about when the solar cycle intensifies, her computer model does not predict specific solar storms linked to that intensity. In fact, huge storms can occur during periods of minimum intensity like we are in now, although the likelihood is less. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

In the year 79, near what is now Naples, Italy, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, burying the nearby city of Pompeii in lava and ash, and creating a time capsule for historians and archaeologists.

Now scientists have evidence that there was an even more powerful eruption of Vesuvius about 4,000 years before that.

Geologist Michael Sheridan of the University of Buffalo compared the event to the dramatic eruption of a U.S. volcano in 1980, except that Mount St. Helens is in a remote rural area.

SHERIDAN: "I think this is really a major finding, finding up to three meters of ash that was traveling along the ground at hurricane velocities like the blast at Mount St. Helens. It would be like the blast of Mount St. Helens occurring but having a city located in the area that was destroyed."

Sheridan and his colleagues, who reported their findings in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," say the Avellino eruption, as it's known, disrupted the economic and social fabric of the area for centuries afterwards. Hot ash was blown as far as present-day Naples, 25 kilometers away. Thousands of footprints preserved in the solidified ash indicate a massive and rapid evacuation of the area.

SHERIDAN: "People just, as soon as they saw this drastic thing happening, they just left immediately. They didn't grab anything. They just took off out of there."

Michael Sheridan says Mount Vesuvius is still there, and Naples is now a city of three million people. And he says he worries what would happen if the volcano erupts again.

Coffee is one of the world's favorite beverages. Perhaps second only to tea, coffee is an essential lubricant to commerce and social life in the Americas, Africa, Europe and elsewhere. Coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant, and drinking coffee can have medical consequences. As we hear from my colleague Rosanne Skirble, a new study indicates that the effect that coffee has on your heart depends on a bit of DNA.

SKIRBLE: A cup of coffee can get you going in the morning… and it could increase your risk of a non-fatal heart attack if you have a specific gene.

Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy is co-author of a study of caffeine consumption and heart disease published in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

EL SOHEMY: "What we did was to look at the DNA sequence of the genes that we know is responsible for how the body breaks down caffeine, and we looked at two different forms of this gene, one that we would call a fast version, one that enables you to break down caffeine very rapidly, and a slow version."

SKIRBLE: El-Sohemy and colleagues at the University of Toronto, Harvard University and University of Costa Rica compared the genes and coffee drinking habits of 4,000 people. Half had had heart attacks.

Study participants were also evenly divided between those with the fast gene and those with the slow gene. El-Sohemy says the difference was significant.

EL SOHEMY: "We found in individuals who had the slow version of this gene, as little as two cups of coffee a day is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Now for those who had the fast version of the gene, there was no increased risk, even with four or more cups a day."

SKIRBLE: And for those under 50 with no history of heart disease, coffee drinking even had beneficial effects.

EL SOHEMY: "Surprising, what we found was that in individuals under 50 years of age who were fast metabolizers, had the fast version of this gene, consumption of as little as one to three cups a day was associated with a lower risk of heart disease."

SKIRBLE: Dr. El-Sohemy says you can't tell which gene you have by the way you feel. And, until a commercial test is developed, he recommends drinking no more than four cups of caffeinated coffee a day. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

If you use the Internet, or even if you don't, you may be familiar with search engines. With billions of pages online, it can be hard to find what you want. Search engines are websites that use various techniques to point you to the right place.

Some are small and specialized. Others are big, like US-based Google or China's Baidu. But they all work a little differently and so the results from any two will likely be different. So you might want to run your search on several search engines. Or you can use our Website of the Week.

NOLZ: "Dogpile combines the best of the best. It brings all the best search engines into one and gives you an opportunity to find those results more efficiently."

Jon Nolz is a spokesman for Dogpile-dot-com, which is what is called a "meta search engine," a search engine that searches other search engines. When you enter a search term in Dogpile, it passes your query on to four other popular sites — Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask-dot-com, then combines and ranks the results.

NOLZ: "We have found that actually, if you look at individual terms, there is only a 1.1 percent overlap of queries across all four major [search] engines. So if you're searching on one engine there's a good chance you're missing results on the other engines. Why is Dogpile important? Because we bring back the best results from all those engines, giving you a better chance of seeing more of the top results for your query term."

Like many search engines today, Dogpile has advanced search capabilities, plus the ability to search for news stories, audio and video. One fun feature I enjoyed was Search Spy, a scrolling anonymous sample of recent search terms that other people have entered. Shortly after I spoke with Jon Nolz I sampled some of those search terms: "Italy demographics," "Kennedy's grave," "Chinese cymbidium varieties," "ecards," "aliens." There's infinite variety, and watching the list scroll by can be addictive.

NOLZ: "What it does is just basically takes a selection of what people are searching for, and it's very interesting. I mean you can see just a total cross-section of random results, but these are what people are looking for, and it gives you an idea of the variety and the breadth and depth of what Dogpile can bring back."

Dogpile-dot-com is supported in part by mixing in sponsored results, but they are clearly labeled. And you may be glad to know that results can be filtered to eliminate sexually-explicit content. Four searches in one at dogpile-dot-com, or get the link from our site, VOAnews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: "Yellow Dog Blues" performed by Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

An annual review of the latest tuberculosis research indicates that Africa and Eastern Europe present the biggest challenges in getting the disease under control.

Tuberculosis, or TB, is an often-fatal respiratory infection. The disease can be spread from person to person, and it can be spread by infected people who show no symptoms — so-called latent infection.

Dr. Wing Wai Yew, of Hong Kong's Grantham Hospital, is the lead author of a tuberculosis update appearing in the March issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

He says especially in developing countries, a variety of circumstances can facilitate the spread of tuberculosis: overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions, and — perhaps most of all — the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

YEW: "HIV, by impairing the host's immunity, increases the susceptibility to TB infection, and those who are latently infected have high risks of developing active disease. Therefore HIV infection fuels a TB epidemic readily, and this is what is happening in Africa. Globally, the HIV-related TB rates are about 11 percent, but in sub-Saharan Africa the rate is about 31 percent".

Anti-TB campaigns depend on testing to identify infected individuals, even those without symptoms, and the so-called DOTS treatment. D-O-T-S, for "Directly Observed Treatment, Short course," in which patients are supervised to make sure they take their medicine. That's important because medical treatment has to continue for six months or more.

One reason TB remains so common, says Dr. Yew, is the failure to develop new medicines as the tuberculosis bacteria develops resistance to older drugs.

YEW: "Well, we do not have any new anti-TB drugs for about half a century. New drugs are needed to shorten the current duration of chemotherapy to about say two months if possible. New drugs are also needed to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. And finally, new drugs are needed to deliver a more optimal treatment for latent TB infection."

Malaria is another disease where new drugs have been slow in coming. The long-favored medicine is now increasingly useless because the malaria parasite has developed resistance to it.

LAXMINARYAN: "The story with malaria largely with treatment is that chloroquine, which is the drug that has been used to treat malaria since the 1950s, is failing in most parts of Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, because of parasite resistance. So it works in some places to some extent, but mostly it's fairly ineffective."

Ramanan Laxminarayan is the lead author of a new study suggesting a policy-based approach to malaria. The new drug of choice for malaria is artemisinin, based on a Chinese herbal remedy. But experts worry that unless care is taken, artemisinin-resistant malaria could evolve.

LAXMINARYAN: "There has been serious concern for quite a while that these drugs, if used as monotherapy — by themselves — will lead very rapidly to the development of parasite resistance, which would then put at risk not just the viability of these drugs in that particular country in which resistance arises, but everywhere else in the world that these drugs are actually being used."

Artemisinin, dispensed with other drugs as ACT, or artemisinin combination therapy, is a lot more expensive than artemisinin by itself. But it's both more effective and less likely to produce resistance in the malaria parasite. Nevertheless, because of the cost, artemisinin by itself — monotherapy — continues to be used.

To encourage the switch to ACT, experts convened by the U.S. Institute of Medicine have recommended a global subsidy to bring the cost of artemisinin combination treatments down to the cost of chloroquine or artemisinin alone — about 10 or 20 U.S. cents per dose.

LAXMINARYAN: "And the reason for this is that it would, first, enable access to these drugs, which would make a remarkable impact on mortality due to malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. That was the first reason. The second is, by lowering the price of these combinations, there would be little or no incentive to use the monotherapy. So driving out monotherapy would essentially save artemisinins from the threat of drug resistance."

Ramanan Laxminarayan says that a program to subsidize the artemisinin combination therapy would have dramatic effects.

LAXMINARYAN: "Just based on a back of the envelope calculation, the introduction of an artemisinin subsidy would take probably only about $100-150 million initially to get started off with, and would have an impact on reducing the burden of malaria tremendously and could potentially save between 15 and 25,000 lives each month."

The study by Ramaman Laxminaryan and his colleagues appears in the new issue of the policy journal, Health Affairs.

That issue also includes an intriguing proposal on how to get drug companies to focus more attention on medicines for so-called neglected diseases — ailments such as leishmaniasis and dengue and tuberculosis, as well as malaria — that may afflict millions in developing countries but which drug companies don't think will earn enough profit to repay the research investment.

Duke University professor David Ridley and his colleagues propose a novel way of encouraging drug companies to invest in those medicines, instead of focusing only on developing new blockbuster drugs that can make them billions. Ridley's suggestion is to reward companies that develop drugs for neglected diseases by giving them priority regulatory consideration for their most profitable new medicines. They would pay a fee for the priority review, but it would mean getting a profitable new drug to market a year sooner.

RIDLEY: "That extra user fee and earning that voucher would be worth it because we estimate that the value of coming to market a year sooner, going from 18 months to six months of review time, would be more than $300 million for a blockbuster drug."

The speeded-up regulatory process — notably in the most lucrative drug market, the United States — would also benefit American consumers and those in other wealthy countries. They would get a desirable new drug a year sooner, and, at the other end of the limited patent protection period, getting a cheaper, generic version of the drug to consumers, also a year sooner.

Like malaria and tuberculosis, avian or bird flu is an infectious disease that does not respect borders. On Thursday, the Pan American Health Organization, or PAHO, called for increased international cooperation in preparing for avian flu and the possibility that a mutated form of the disease could spawn a flu pandemic.

The deadly H5N1 flu virus has been spreading rapidly from southeast Asia, and as PAHO Assistant Director Dr. Carissa Etienne grimly admits, it is unclear what lies ahead.

ETIENNE: "The evolution of this threat can not be predicted. We know that it will cause significant deaths. Health, social and economic systems will be disrupted. Health care systems will be severely overburdened, economies will be strained, and the whole social order will be disrupted. And we must move to strengthen national and international public health systems to deal with this epidemic."

Dr. Etienne points out that if the virus mutates to allow person-to-person transmission, a flu pandemic could overwhelm medical resources — doctors, hospital facilities, and medical equipment. That means governments and health agencies should prepare for all possibilities, including the possibility that there is no vaccine or drug to treat the disease.

If that mutation occurs, the disease could be spread by travellers on airplanes and highways, not just bird migration routes. Because microbes don't respect national boundaries, Dr. Joxel Garcia, Deputy Director of PAHO, believes that wealthy nations have a direct interest in supporting high quality public health systems in developing countries.

GARCIA: "The chain is only as strong as the weakest link of the chain. So that means it doesn't matter if we protect the North with all the resources, if something happens in the South or in the center part of the hemisphere, everybody will be impacted significantly."

An influenza outbreak almost 90 years ago casts a long shadow over today's planning for a possible bird flu pandemic. The 1918 flu spread quickly and killed tens of millions of people worldwide. Medical science has advanced a long way since then, but PAHO's Carissa Etienne stresses that preparation is still key.

ETIENNE: "We have a window of opportunity to build this public health infrastructure. We cannot wait for the commencement of the pandemic to begin preparedness and emergency response planning. We have to do it now."

And because the concern this time is a disease that originates in birds, officials of the Pan American Health Organization say it is essential that veterinarians and other animal health specialists work closely with those watching out for human health.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. We always like to hear from you. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address -

Our World

Voice of America

Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our show was edited by Rob Sivak. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.

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